I am super excited to have New York Film Academy Photography School as a guest on my blog. Even though this article wasn’t written by me, I couldn’t agree more with every word in it. Check it out:
Make no mistake about it – photography can be one of the most fulfilling creative pursuits in the world, but it can also be one of the most expensive. Whether you’ve spent multiple thousands on a Canon 1D to launch a freelance career or have taken years to study the intricacies of the craft at the NYFA photography school, sooner or later you’re going to want your passion to start paying for itself.
Making enough to cover your overheads – especially if you’re a film photographer – is no easy task, and it’s common for talented yet desperate photographers to take on ‘speculative’ work in the hope of catching a break.
So, what exactly is speculative work, and are there occasions where you should take it on?
The World of On-Spec
You might not be familiar with the term, but if you’ve spent even a few minutes looking for photography work, chances are you’ve seen the type of adverts we’ll be discussing below.
Every now and then, an employer will ask for some photography to be carried out (or for rights to use existing work) without being able to provide a monetary fee in return. Instead, they offer recompense in the form of a promise – take this one on the chin, and you’ll get the opportunity to gain ongoing/lucrative/career-changing work in the near future.
Another common set-up is that someone is looking to commission a few photographers, see what they come up with, then go with the best one.
Both scenarios are known as ‘speculative’ work, with doing photography under such terms usually referred to as ‘working on-spec’ (that is, doing something for free while speculating paid work as a result.)
If you think it sounds like a dud-deal when written out like that, remember that these types of ‘job’ often come from very legitimate companies who sound like they have a lot to offer.
Even seasoned pros get suckered in from time to time.
So It’s All a Scam, Then?
Not necessarily, and ‘scam’ is a very strong word. The practice is so commonplace amongst the freelance community (photography, graphic design and writing alike) that many see it as just the way the world works from time to time.
There may well be work just over the horizon, after you’ve done a small free job (often masquerading under the euphemism ‘trial job’). In fact, the chances are high that there will be paying work to follow.
So What’s the Harm?
It may all sound innocuous – sometimes you’ve got to give a little to get a little, right?
But whether there is or isn’t a job at the end of it doesn’t actually matter. The core principle is still the same:
A company wanting to hire the time of a professional should be prepared to pay for their time.
An odd thing about speculative work is that it only seems to crop up in the creative fields. Nobody would dream of asking a plumber to fix a sink for free on the promise of more sinks to fix later, or hire three solicitors to advise on the same legal matter then only pay the one you preferred.
Photography should be no different. Your time is as valuable as anyone else’s, and you can’t pay your overheads with imaginary money.
You’re not ‘just a photographer’. You’re a photographer. If you want to get paid like a pro, act like one; make sure you charge properly for your time. To devalue your services not only undermines your authority, but it also encourages a practice that is damaging to our whole industry.
But How Would the Employer Know if I’m Any Good?
This is a good question, particularly because it’s invariably what was running through the employer’s mind while they were writing the job ad.
Perhaps the only time it’s okay to take on speculative work is when you don’t have anything to show for yourself and want a couple of testimonials for your portfolio. In which case, go nuts; everyone has to start somewhere and it would be a little strange for a client to take you on without any decent samples to show them.
But it doesn’t take long to build a portfolio (and you can even make a portfolio out of your hobbyist work – you don’t necessarily need to have numerous past clients in your byline to show off your skills). Once you’re in a position to say “this is my previous work and a few people who have benefited from my services in the past”, it’s up to the potential employer to decide whether or not they’d like to commission you – it’s not their prerogative to subject you to further testing.
The whole on-spec situation is one born of innocence on behalf of both clients and freelancers; rarely do people see anything wrong with it, or offer speculative work with malicious intent… except in one scenario.
Never do photography competitions that require a fee to enter; these are almost always outright scams. Even if there isn’t an entry cost, be sure to read all the T’s and C’s before sending in your work. People don’t run competitions – which take up huge amounts of resources – just for the good of their health; someone, somewhere is profiting. If not you, then you need to figure out who is (and whether or not it’s at your expense).
In closing, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing photography for no money. But when you’re doing photography for free which others profit from, it’s a whole different ballgame.
* For more info on the issues surrounding spec work, see the NO!SPEC website. It pertains mostly to the graphic design community, but most of the core advice and discussion applies to photography too.